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Trump administration renews mining leases near Minnesota wilderness, reversing Obama

A person on a canoe paddles on one of the many waterways in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Trump administration has agreed to renew two mining leases near the area. (Dave Freeman)

The Trump administration moved Friday to renew leases for a copper and nickel mining operation on the border of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, reversing a decision made in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s tenure in office.

The action, made public in an Interior Department legal decision, marks a win for the Chilean mining firm belonging to the family of billionaire Andrónico Luksic, who rents a home to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, in Washington.

The department and U.S. Forest Service had decided a year ago not to renew the leases while federal officials launched a formal review of the operation’s environmental impact. Reversing that outcome has been the subject of intense lobbying since President Trump took office. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with proponents of Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta PLC, shortly after taking office.

The two expired leases, which span 4,800 acres and date to 1966, lie on the southwest border of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness area. The federal government had been studying whether all mining activities in 234,000 acres abutting the wilderness should be barred for the next 20 years. The company applied to renew the leases in 2012.

The 19-page decision issued Friday by Daniel Jorjani, the principal deputy solicitor for Interior, said the previous administration’s order “improperly interpreted the leases and is withdrawn.” Twin Metals Minnesota, he wrote, has a “non-discretionary right to a third renewal.”

Rather than announcing the decision in a release, aides from Interior’s solicitor office notified Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R), who made the news public. “It’s refreshing to have an administration that understands the importance of mining to Minnesota — and the entire United States,” Daudt said in a statement.

The mining operation is backed by many state Republicans and at least one Democrat, Rep. Rick Nolan (Minn.), but is opposed by the state’s two U.S. senators and Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

“This shameful reversal by the Trump Administration shows that big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington,” Dayton said in a statement. “We will have to uncover why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota’s priceless Boundary Waters Canoe Area.”

Dayton’s deputy chief of staff said the governor received no advance notice of the Trump administration’s decision.

As recently as Thursday, Zinke had told Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) that he was committed to letting environmental science guide federal decisions on whether to allow mining in places such as a site near Boundary Waters. Late Friday, McCollum accused Zinke of deliberately misleading her in their latest call.

“He reiterated to me directly just how precious the waters of the BWCA are and the need for ongoing environmental study,” McCollum said in a statement. “Twenty-four hours later, he broke his word and issued mining leases footsteps from the BWCA to a foreign-owned mining company. Clearly, the numerous assurances I received from Secretary Zinke about protecting the BWCA were worthless and deceitful.”

Doug Niemela, national campaign manager for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement that the move ran contrary to the will of Minnesota residents. During last year’s public comment period, more than 74,000 people urged the Forest Service to deny the leases’ renewal.

“The Interior Department’s decision is a big fat Christmas gift for a giant foreign mining corporation willing to do anything to exploit the watershed of Minnesota’s crown jewel wilderness,” said Niemela, whose group plans to file a lawsuit over the decision. “It runs contrary to fact, contrary to the law, and contrary to the views of Minnesota voters who love the Boundary Waters and rely on it for thousands of jobs, world-class hunting and fishing, and some of the cleanest water on Earth. We plan to challenge this illegal decision in court.”

Luksic — who has tweeted that there is no connection between Antofagasta’s business and his real estate relationship with Ivanka Trump and Kushner — rents the couple a six-bedroom home he owns in the affluent Kalorama neighborhood. The two serve as advisers to the president.

A White House official said in an email Saturday that the couple were “not aware of the situation, had nothing to do with it and have never met their landlord.”

Twin Metals Minnesota, which had been challenging the Obama administration’s original decision in federal court in Minnesota, moved to dismiss its lawsuit on Friday and issued a statement saying the new opinion is “an important first step to ensure the certainty of investments in U.S. mining projects and to reaffirm longstanding property rights and the rule of law.”

But the policy reversal could prompt new litigation, since it halts the ongoing Environmental Impact Statement review that is underway. In issuing last year’s decision, Interior officials expressed concern that any potential spill from nearby mining could cause “serious and irreplaceable harm” to an area that ranks as the only large lake-land wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The wilderness contains lakes and streams dating from the Pleistocene Epoch, 100 species of migratory birds and an active fishery. When Congress established it, lawmakers directed the Forest Service to maintain its water quality, protect its fish and wildlife, and minimize the environmental impacts associated with mineral development.

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